The Magic that was this Journey

Sunday, May 29, 2011

14 – 5/29/11: Love, Magic, Loss and the Journey

I’ve been home a month and, because I've often been asked for the “elevator speech” about my trip, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect upon the 12 weeks and 8,000 miles that was this odyssey of a journey (facilitated by an RV called Odyssey!). 

Like Ulysses (or Odysseus), this journey was part homecoming, part discovery, part ego, part identity and part grace.

Traveling around our country, having intimate knowledge of the places we call “home,” imprinted upon me images and stories of places and people, stories I couldn’t access before this trip.  In a way, this trip was coming home to my own county, “owning” both the darkness and light that is who we are, and coming home to the who that I am at this age, in this moment of time. 

As has been written about Odysseus’ journey: 

The theme of temptation as a psychological peril is portrayed by the sirens who lure sailors to their deaths by seduction. They represent the ideal audience—they sing about the most glorious moment of your life, thus tempting you to stay the hero or warrior they are portraying you as. Your own weakness makes you vulnerable, your greatest weakness comes from inside you.

While I’ve come home to who I am, I'm shedding those things that tempt me to hang on to the most glorious moments of my life, to learn to get ego out of the way of myself and others.

The gods disguised themselves on Odysseus’ journey because the only way they could interact with mortals was through disguise.  As I’ve told stories about my journey, I’ve talked about how the gods, disguised or not, were or were not on my side. The weather gods and the gods of synchronicity were on my side. The gods of not-backing-into-things?  Not so much.

We avoided, magically, the horrible weather this country experienced the last few months.  We were on the banks of the Mississippi before it reached flood stage (I imagine the park at which we overnighted in Natchez, MS is completely under water).  We were 60 miles west of the tornado that blew through a small town in Louisiana. While we encountered winter temperatures as we headed north, we only encountered snow on the mountain passes in Washington.  Magically, we were in northern Wisconsin the one week of spring-tease, before the snows returned.

And the gods of synchronicity smiled upon us.  For example, we pulled into Madison, Wisconsin the day the “Fab 14” (the 14 Democratic Senators who absented themselves to prevent a quorum) returned to the Wisconsin senate and the day before a mid-term election. I got to get a feeling for what happened in Madison earlier this year, only because I was there on that specific day.

In contrast, we pulled into Bismarck, North Dakota on the day a conservative, Republican senator gave a speech defending why North Dakota needed to spend money on infrastructure and its people.  

North Dakota is one of few states with a budget in the black because of the recent discovery of what may be the largest oil reserve in the world, The Bakken.  It is the largest domestic oil discovery since Alaska 's Prudhoe Bay and is said to have the potential to eliminate all American dependence on foreign oil.  Needless to say, it is a boon for state government.

This Senator was speaking to the protesters in Bismarck, a group very different from the protestors in Madison.  Bismarck protesters were “Tea Party” members and the like, protesting spending reserves for infrastructure and for programs to help those in need.  This Senator, as conservative as those to whom he was speaking, stood up and defended the need for public goods and the need to take care of ourselves and our neighbors.  Remarkable.

And, of course, we can’t forget that I pulled into Louisiana the Friday before Fat Tuesday (and had no idea what day it was!).

I could tell story after story from this journey about the gods of synchronicity being on my side.  That is the grace that was this trip. Thank you, gods of synchronicity.

And, then, there are the gods of not-backing-into-things, whom didn’t appear to be on my side.  As I told my parents who were quite concerned with my ability to safely drive the rig home, I backed up hundreds of times on the journey and only backed into things four or five times (who is counting?).  It’s too bad that each of those times damaged both the rig and the things I backed into (I apologize to the universe for the trees I marked).

As it turned out, backing into my parent’s tree was the best thing that I could have done. The Beast, she’s a lemon.  She is rotted, through and through (the walls are rotted, a side-effect of living in this damp climate).  It’s even a small miracle she made it 8,000 miles without falling apart.  So, the insurance company is sending her to salvage, I’m out more than a few grand and I’m working my way through my grief about the end of our relationship.  For, you see, I had a deep relationship with her.  I thought we were going to stay together for a while.  Alas, this is not the case.  As in all areas of life, everything is temporary.  Love while you can.

RIP, you lovely Beast: 1991-2011.

Finally, as many of you already know, my beloved younger dog, Lucy-Lou, suffered so much anxiety from the journey that her aggressive tendencies got the better of her.  She needs some tough, loving training (which she is getting) and to be re-homed to a single dog household.  Lucy has been a huge management challenge from the very beginning of our relationship (3 years) but, and maybe because of, I have big, big love for this girl.  Another loss. Again, love when you can.

Once I get through this grieving, I’ll turn my attention to what I am going to do with all that I’ve learned on this journey.  A book?  Perhaps, but that feels too dead.  Something alive needs to come from this amazing and magical Odyssey. 

Thanks to all of you for coming with me: through this blog;  those of you who gave me shelter and comfort along the way; and, those of you who inspire me to continue to ask the important questions about the connections (or lack of) between people and their governments.

Love when you can.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

13 – 4/19/11: E pluribus unum

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Preamble, United States Constitution)

You’re a little man in a little town who has to go hat in hand before your alderman to beg for the bullets in your gun and the paper in your copier. You have no idea of the power money can bring to bear, Chief Van Alstyne. None at all. (Julia Spencer-Fleming, One was a Soldier, 2011, p. 365)

I had to come to Wisconsin to find people talking about the unprecedented level of inequality in the U.S. And, I had to come to Wisconsin to find people talking about the power of money.

I finished a blog two posting ago with this statement:

I am outraged that those in power, in some powerful states like the one I am currently visiting, are not willing to interrogate the excesses of early 21st century capitalism to generate revenues by closing loopholes contributing to the historically unprecedented inequality in our country. And, I’m outraged that so few people are outraged by this.
As it turns out, nearly everybody I talked to in Wisconsin, in Madison and Ashland, are outraged by this. As most readers know, Madison, Wisconsin has been a hot-bed of democratic action for the past few months.  In January, their new governor, Scott Walker, proposed a “budget repair” bill that required public employees to pay more for pensions and benefits, severely restricted collective bargaining and cut many safety nets. The “Fab 14” or the “Wisconsin 14” Democratic senators left Wisconsin for Illinois in an attempt to delay voting for lack of a quorum.  These senators returned to the legislature the week I was in Wisconsin, after six weeks away.

The governor was practicing his interpretation of representative democracy; he claimed voters elected him to office to enact the kinds of reform he was proposing. The Fab 14 were practicing democratic action by inhibiting quorum with their absence. And, perhaps the most newsworthy practices of democracy came from public employees and union members including teachers, firefighters, police, and all flavors of city, county and state employees.  The Capitol was mobbed with protesters for weeks on end.  The legislature and Governor did pass/sign the budget repair bill without the absent Democratic senators but the day before I was in Madison, the Democrats returned and action was taken on a revised, somewhat softer, bill.  The important point here is that all of these actions were part of the democratic process, flawed as it may be, not just the protests. Remember Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

When in Madison, the girls and I walked downtown to see what was going on at the Capitol and to interview a few folks.  The first person we approached was one of the few people still protesting outside the Capitol building – he calls himself “Dennis the Menace.” Dennis’ response to the question, “What comes to mind when you think of government” was to recite the preamble to the United States Constitution. He also quoted the often misquoted Bible passage: “the love of money is the root of all evil.” In popular culture, we’ve shortened the passage to “money is the root of all evil” but, as one can see, the actual passage means something very different.  When asked if he separates politics and administration, Dennis said that money separates the two and that the love of money is the powerful’ driving addiction in politics. While he wants little from government (he has embraced a simplicity lifestyle), his mission is to be as much of a menace as possible, fighting against the “fight against people who make less than a million dollars a year.”

I also talked with a graphics designer who was taking her daily lunch-time walk around the Capitol grounds. She was an observer of the protests, not a participant. She said government is not “we the people,” that it is becoming an oligarchy and that is very dangerous.  She was hopeful and excited after the last presidential election and is deeply disappointed at what appears to be folks “not willing to play with others.” She used school yard metaphors for the way politics is played nowadays, talking about not sharing and bullying. What she wants from government is some balance and, like Dennis, wants government to be looking out for those who don’t make millions as much as we look out for those that do. She called on another metaphor for balance: a floating boat.  If one side is overloaded, the boat tips and everyone falls in the water.  She thinks we are all falling into cold, un-swimmable waters.

My most remarkable conversation was with Carole, a woman taking a break from her job as a housekeeper at the nearby YMCA. What comes to mind for her is shame: Madison has always been a town divided, but the divisions now are caustic.  In the past, the divisions were moderated by doing the right thing for the people of Wisconsin. And she feels shame that this is not happening anymore, especially in her beloved, chosen home of Wisconsin.

She felt that if Walker would have just proposed cutting “Badgercare,” without including the assault on public employees’ collective bargaining rights, then the bill would have passed with little protest.  Irrespective of our political and social leanings, Carole said, working for the rights of the impoverished does not tend to bring many folks together. And here’s the bright spot in what happened in Wisconsin; she found the response to Walker’s plans encouraging, en-heartening and enlivening.  Everyone was standing together. The protest was a form of what sociologist Elijah Anderson calls a “Cosmopolitan Canopy,” a space where diverse peoples, who are otherwise segregated culturally and socially, come together and get along.

When asked what she wanted from government, she asked for fairness and equity.  She doesn’t want the budget balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer and she wondered when this was going to stop.  She said, ironically, the poor already know how to cope with loss because they’ve lived it their entire lives.  She is worried about the middle class – those that “have.” – that we won’t be able to cope with the kind of loss coming down the pike.

She thinks Governor Walker could have avoided much of the political upheaval if he had just had a public forum and talked and listened to folks.  She pointed to both the deep disconnections between government and the people and the deep disconnections between people, disconnections that were bridged, at least for a moment, in the protests. Like many others interviewed for this project, Carole is very sad about the way things seem to be going.

As I drove from Madison to Ashland (home of ex-Greener Sharon Anthony, her partner Pat and daughters Sarah and Hailey), the nation was a flutter about a possible shut down of the federal government and NPR had several stories about the implications of such an event.  In one interview, the (female) federal worker said: “this is not real life; this is politics. It’s them flexing their muscles. This has nothing to do with my government service.”

Ashland sits on Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay. It’s a small, funky, rural town.  Home of Northland College, a small, private liberal arts environmental college and many really big pickup trucks. A friend of my friends gave me a bottle of his homemade maple syrup. He tapped the trees and filled the bottles; his 85 year-old father did everything else, including cutting the firewood to boil the sap.

Pat took me and his girls to the Black Cat CafĂ© on Saturday morning so I could talk with the locals that regularly gather there. We rode our bikes – the snow melt was cause for acting like it was spring (the temperature didn’t verify it til late in the day). Over a breakfast of herbed biscuits in wild mushroom gravy (one of the many excellent meals I had on this trip – I really should do an entry in praise of excellent food!), I talked with a number of people over several hours. While I talked with conservatives (in particular, a self-described “outdoors man” whose hobbies involve firearms and small combustion engines) and liberals, all were progressive in one form or the other, living up to Wisconsin’s historically progressive reputation. As with other folks across the country, most said government is not what it is supposed to be.  It is not the collective will of the people, it is not competent (and privatization is not the answer), honest and just.  It is too controlling and too much shaped by corporate greed and moneyed interests (which is one of the reasons why privatization is not the answer).  Folks did not differentiate the political and the administrative.  One person said she may do so under other circumstances but under current conditions, the entire system is failing and failing us.

One man discussed a theory he heard about in college which goes something like this (I modified it using a three-legged stool metaphor – apologies): government sits on a three legged stool – each of the legs represents the three major interest groups which are always vying for power and control of government: the people (citizenry), businesses (the market) and professionals (the bureaucracy). Ostensibly, politics falls on the citizen leg.  I’d argue this stool (or whatever metaphor we are using) needs another leg for politics although one may argue that politics is what you get when you combine the three legs.  If any leg is longer or shorter than the others, the stool is either unsteady or it falls. And, our stool is falling.

One other thing occurred while I was in Wisconsin: an election. The Supreme Court justice race, in particular, was the race to watch.  The sitting justice campaigned as a “yes man” for Governor Walker.  His opponent campaigned as a reasoned judge, one who will not be ruled by politics.  While she didn’t state it outright, she represents interests opposite of Walker’s. Supreme Court seats are nonpartisan, but the battle lines were clearly drawn in this election. 

This election was to be a test of the recent political times – would Wisconsin citizens rubber-stamp Governor Walker and re-elect Prosser or would they “throw the bum out” and elect Kloppenburg? A Kloppenburg win would be seen as a win for grassroots politics. The razor thin margin between the two widened when uncounted ballots were added to the mix a few days after the election.  Prosser, the incumbent, is now winning by a several thousand votes.  While the major cities saw turnouts of a bit greater than 50%, turnout in the state was about 33%, which is high for a mid-term election.  If we look at the percent of eligible voters who are registered, then the participation rate drops even lower. 

Oh, and by the way, Madisonians voted out “Mayor Bob” and replaced him with “Mayor Paul” (who has served two previous, and long, terms as mayor).The two men appear virtually identical in terms of politics and positions. For some reason, Madison voters wanted to “throw one bum out” to replace him with an identical bum.  As my host in Madison, Michael Mucha, had to say: “we all seem to be looking for a hero, for someone to get us out of the messes we are in. Projecting that out to another, instead of taking responsibility ourselves, seems the easy route.”

What’s my point?  Wisconsin seems an apt microcosm of the U.S. and a good description of the results of my talks with folks across the country: we are pretty clearly split on issues, almost 50/50.  EVEN WHEN THERE IS SIGNIFICANT POLITICAL FOMENT.  There are no clear mandates. And, only a small percentage of the eligible population is actually registered and voting which means this dramatic, almost 50/50 split is not, necessarily representative of the majority of all people in the U.S. So, really, forget about these “mandates.”  And, what are the other 50 or so percent of the country doing, if they are not participating in elections and contributing to the political life of their communities?

We do seem to be looking for heroes – for super-action figures who can get us out of our messes by flying faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive…

Which brings us back to the epigraphs of this posting: the Preamble and the quote from Julia Spencer-Fleming’s new novel.  Clearly, we all need to be more aware of the power money can bring to bear and, perhaps, to speak and act against this kind of power (if we all aren’t already doing so). And, we need to remember that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, not money itself. Finally, perhaps everything we are looking for with regard to designing a government by, for and of the people is encapsulated in the prescient Preamble, to note:

·         We the people
·         Establish justice
·         Ensure tranquility
·         Provide for the common defense
·         Promote the general welfare
·         Secure the blessings of liberty

I’ve mentioned in other postings that there is a group of young academics in the field proposing some very interesting ways to think about government and public administration.  It seems to me that these preamble elements are encapsulated in their work. More on this in my next, and final, posting.

p.s. I’ve safely returned to Olympia.  The road home from Wisconsin was a blur because all the members of this expedition were road weary and home sick. Except for some time in Bismarck, North Dakota (and what a contrast with Madison, more in my next posting!), we stopped driving only to eat and sleep. It was a grueling homecoming but it sure is good to be home.)

p.s.s. I know long blog postings are the kiss of death but I’ve been sitting on too much information for too many days…a successful blogger I probably will never be.  I am, however, deeply appreciative of those of you who have followed this blog, taken an interest and even posted a few comments!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

12 – 4/10/11: In Praise of Public Goods and all Things Great

Two people I interviewed in Ashland, Wisconsin (more on Wisconsin interviews in the next blog) had this to say about government:

When functioning the way it is supposed to be, government is the collective effort to provide what we need for civil society: police, roads, drivers’ licenses, support for the poor, clean air, water, etc.

The economy doesn’t work without government; government provides the common-wealth.  If the road to your business is not plowed, you will have no business. Government does what we need for the common good –those things that private industry does not, or cannot, provide (like defense).

I’ve wanted to write in praise of the public goods (and all things great) I’ve availed myself of while on this epic journey and these two folks handed me the opportunity to do so.

In the ten weeks I’ve been on the road, I’ve:

·         Traveled over 6000 miles of public roads and highways, including a section of the original Lincoln Highway (see post #1 - unfortunately, the Lincoln Highway segment felt like it was the original, it was so pocked and cracked. Infrastructure deficit!).
·         Availed myself of countless public restroom facilities.
·         Drove two National Parkways, highways in the National Park System (Natchez Trace and Blue Ridge).
·         Visited and/or camped in two national parks (Joshua Tree in California and the Cuyahoga Valley in Akron, Ohio).
·         Visited and/or camped in three county parks.
·         Visited and camped in 11 state parks.
·         Visited two National Lakeshores, Indiana Dunes (Lake Michigan) and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Lake Superior).
·         Ate fish that came from a recently certifiable “ok-to-eat-fish-caught-here,” Lake Erie (no small feat to clean that lake).
·         Took two public (and free) ferries: one from Mustang Island, Texas and one across the Mississippi River.
·         Filled my water tanks from public water sources.
·         Dumped my RV tanks at public dumping stations (including one at a service area on the Ohio Turnpike, a remarkable thing).
·         Breathed clean air.
·         Ate safe food.
·         Treated my migraines with drugs regulated and tested for safety.
·         Walked my dogs on trails built and maintained by public entities.
·         This trip was possible because of a sabbatical, provided by a public college.

Like the business that can’t do business if public goods aren’t present (roads, snow removal, water, sewage), this journey would not be possible without this long, likely incomplete, list.  In fact, if it weren’t for public schools, libraries and public student aid for college/university, I would not be here, doing this trip, doing this work.

So, today, I sing praises to public goods and wonder how we can spread the word to others that public goods, literally, provide foundation and ballast to our lives.

I also sing praises to all things Great as I find myself, in Ashland Wisconsin (visiting former colleague and friend Sharon Anthony and her family) on the shore of yet another Great Lake. 

I’ve found myself during this trip, on the shores of three (really great) Great Lakes: Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.  As the pictures show, Superior is still working on giving up its ice.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

11 – 4/2/11: The Accidental Traveler

(Tipping my hat to Ann Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist)

In The Accidental Tourist, the protagonist, Macon Leary, writes travel guides for people who don’t like to travel and are forced to do so on business.  Like his readers, he hates traveling and does so only "with his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life" (

I’ve become, it seems, the Accidental Traveler. Not because I’ve come to hate this traveling (although I am still complaining about the quality of roads in the East and the density/aggression of drivers) but because I am having many accidents with this old RV.  Shutting my eyes, holding my breath, and hanging on for dear life while in reverse is obviously not a good strategy. The most recent was a scrape with a large, stately maple tree in my mother’s yard.  This scrape, or conflict, resulted in the driver’s side back corner being mutilated and a goodly amount of the fiberglass torn off.  It is temporarily repaired with the handyman’s secret weapon: duct tape.  Indeed, anything is possible with enough duct tape.

Like the dark day in Fresno when I backed into a sawed off tree limb (still attached to the tree, mind you) and cracked my back window, it was a dark day in Toledo.  A very dark day, indeed. I’ve been rethinking my primary relationship with this, or any, RV.  Perhaps it is not in my destiny to be an RV owner and operator. Or, as a friend said, maybe this is my “training RV.”

Still, me, the girls and this old injured RV need to limp on home and will be starting West/Northwest on Monday. The weather on the northerly route looks mild (read: no snow) and presuming Interstate 94 through North Dakota and into Montana is open, this is the route we will take.  Skirting Chicago, through Wisconsin (with a stop in Madison, of course), and across the northerly plains/mountain states back home to Washington.

I’ve taken time off the “American Crossings” project while visiting family in Toledo but I did have an interview with two remarkable people while in Akron: colleagues and co-authors, Kathy Feltey and Bridget O’Neill Susel (we coauthored the 1998 Public Administration Review piece on authentic public participation).

When asked what comes to mind when they think of government, they said: “big” and “polarized.” 

When asked if they differentiate between the political and administrative sides of the house, Bridget said, “yes, because I live it and have the conversation about the differences with constituents 2-3 times a week” (she’s working for a city government). She went on to say that the political side of the house is not representing constituents; rather, they are representing themselves. Both said that the degrees of machinations and positioning that happens at the political level creates a huge disconnect between politicians and citizens.  “Us” is an afterthought, is not central in the political processes and there is no sense of a political collective.  Instead it’s “us versus them.” And, depending on who is in power, administrators get pulled from one side or the other. 

When asked what they want from government, Bridget said, “I really, really, want a whole paradigm shift.” Kathy wants, “a move to true representative government with the priority on how to create communities where people can live and thrive, where the focus of government is on shaping/regulating what is needed for people to thrive (food, water, air, education, infrastructure, etc.). And government needs to be organized with living and thriving as a priority.  Bridget wants the political side of the house to get out of the way of administrators who are trying to do just what Kathy wants. They want administrators to have the tools they need to do the work needed for the public. Central to this is recognizing that public goods and services need to be managed and implemented in the public sphere, that privatization sucks the public out of public goods.

Interestingly, neither want a more direct democracy.  Both want a representative system that works and working requires more than a two-party system.  A two-party system sets everyone up to see things as an “either-or,” or a “this-or-that” instead of seeing a spectrum of possibilities.  They also think the two party system pits citizens against each other in either-or situations, causing more conflict and incivility than is necessary or really there. A paradigm shift would involve moving to a multi-party system.

And, a paradigm shift would separate politics and administration in some significant way so that administrators could do their work without the push and pull, or back and forth, of the vagaries of the (two-party) political system.

I’ve heard some politicos say that our two-party, “this or that” system works because, in the end, the pulling back and forth averages out to something moderate and stable.  I’m not sure about this, as I watch worker and human rights being thrown upon the budget pyre as a result of what appears to be a national shift toward fiscal conservatism. I’m not outraged that we have to change the way we spend public money—this is a hard truth. But, I am outraged that those in power, in some powerful states like the one I am currently visiting, are not willing to interrogate the excesses of early 21st century capitalism to find ways to generate revenues by closing  loopholes that contribute to the historically unprecedented inequality in our country. And, I’m outraged that so few people are not outraged by this.

Perhaps, like Macon Leary from The Accidental Tourist and like me as I reverse this old, injured RV, most of us (save those relative few protesting in the streets) are living life with our eyes shut, holding our breath and hanging on for dear life.  It’s time to open our eyes and breathe.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Southern Conversations – The Natchez Trace National Parkway, The Blue Ridge Parkway and Traveling Through the South/Southeast

I’ve gone silent since Ash Wednesday. Perhaps it is in respect to the Christian tradition of Lent, a time of introspection, fasting and preparation.  Perhaps it is because being in the South, my ancestral homelands, brought some grief and longing for links to my father’s family, which have long since disappeared.  

Perhaps I’ve been silent because ever since I left the Natchez Trace (just south of Nashville, about 10 days ago), traveling has been difficult and mostly unpleasant.  The roads are bad (the infrastructure deficit, especially in states with more roads to maintain like these easterly states?) and crowded with aggressive drivers and towns.  The back roads are a test of the structure of one’s vehicle (and we know this old RV is an old girl, with many loose parts) and a test of one’s patience. Even the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway was not drivable in this old RV.

Yesterday, I drove the worst road I’ve driven in my life, through the foothills of the Appalachians in West Virginia.  And, excepting for stopping for gas, it felt like there were few reasons to stop along this mean road. The intention was to get through it, be rid of the road and get to the next place.  That describes my traveling for the last 10 days or so. I’ve had some lovely visits with friends and stayed at a captivating state park in North Carolina (Stone Mountain State Park), but the destinations have been the highlights, not the traveling.  This is not the intention of this expedition.

I also realize I’m not as captivated by place in these southerly/easterly states as I was during my travels in the Pacific Northwest, California and the Southwest.  Yes, Natchez, Mississippi and the unspoiled antebellum mansions and plantations spoke of place, but it was not a place that speaks to me.  Actually, I want to speak out to it: “how can we glorify and make tourism around a tradition that would not have existed without slavery and how do we explain the tin-roofed shacks up the road where black folk are living today, not much better off than they were then?”

The Natchez Trace Parkway, a highway that is part of the National Park System (see a later blog for ponderings on national, state and county parks), runs from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN for approximately 400 miles.  It, roughly, traces the original “Trace” or path that was used by the first people who inhabited this continent (the Chickasaws called it “the Path of Peace”) and, later, by traders and settlers. The Trace seems to ooze Southern living – the speed limit is 50mph and you can’t rush through it.

William Heat Least Moon, in Blue Highways has this to say about the Trace:

…[the Trace], like a river, followed natural contours and gave focus to the land; it so brought out the beauty that every road commissioner in the nation should drive the Trace to see that highway does not have to outrage landscape (p. 107).

Perhaps another reason I’ve gone silent is that I feel the landscape becomes more outraged, as one moves from “West” to “East.”  

High population density, many highways and byways, the same damn chain restaurants and stores (including, yes you named it, the ubiquitous Dollar General and Family Dollar stores), too many cars on the road – it all outrages and overpowers a landscape that has less drama, less spectacle, and is more muted than those landscapes of the West.

These south/easterly landscapes are still magnificent (I’ve just passed through the Appalachians and, boy howdy, these are some amazing mountains).  But, somehow, for me, place is getting lost in the outrages of too many people, too many towns/cities, too many convenience stores—too much of everything.  Many apologies to my friends and loved ones who live in these parts of this country, are attached to place, have a sense of place, and love where they live.  No disrespect intended. And, apologies to the eastern and New England states (is this even possible, this apology?) for traveling around you  (sorry, Greg, for not traveling in New York).

These south/easterly places meld together, as do the voices of the people I talk to. They are starting to sound the same, not just with regard to sweet southern accents, but also what they have to say about government.

I’m surrounded by a cacophony of voices saying government is inefficient, wasteful, overly controlling, needs to get out of the religion business, needs to be run more like a business, needs to downsize and reorganize, needs to stop spending more than it has, stop giving stuff to freeloaders, stop giving everything to minorities and stop falling all over itself in trying to acclimate to minority views.  The modal view, no matter where one stands on the ideological or political spectrum (but, mostly I’ve talked to those who would be considered conservatives), is that government is corrupt and broke, not trustworthy and has forgotten its purpose: to represent the people.

But, how can we adequately represent people who are as diverse as we are in this country?  Forget about the multiple positions our diversity could lead to: how do we represent a “people” that do seem to be sitting on two sides of the ideological fence?  While we may agree with each other about what is wrong, we don’t agree about what to do. 

For one side, a Madisonian—or, perhaps, Reagan approach is preferred.  For the other side, a more Jeffersonian/Lincoln/FDR approach is preferred.

One side thinks if we just let the market do what it does best, radically cut government/spending (except for military), return to a representative government run by the elites (some have even suggested taking away citizenship rights from some groups so they can’t vote) and leave folks alone to pursue their individualistic needs, we’ll be in better shape.  And, don’t presume that these folks are all privileged; many of the folks I talked with were working poor. 

The other side says government has abandoned the people and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. They want government to do what we can’t do as individuals (regulate water, air, food, workplace safety standards, etc) and to exercise responsibility for the public good. They want safety nets and businesses required to participate in safety net programs because they don’t trust business to do right by their employees without being required to do so. They want government to keep us out of war.

One side says government meddles too much in their lives; the other side says that government has abandoned the people and the public good and is on a very slippery slope toward doing more harm than good.

(As I write this, I am slightly aware that we are bombing Libya—along with the French and Brits—and while I don’t know the right thing to do in this case, I wonder about our intervention and the money going toward that effort.  Also, I’m remarkably cut off from news as not much news is played on backcountry radio, I’ve been without an internet connection for more than a week and the newspapers I’ve seen are all local papers, published a few times a week, and reporting on world events is not their purpose. One would think, in this information era, people would be bombarded with information no matter where they are.  I don’t think this is the case, especially if you have to rely on satellite connections to the internet and on local papers.  This may partially explain why so many people seem ignorant of current events. Even in the information era, it can still be difficult to get information.)

Those that lean toward individualism and the free market are either nonplussed by income inequalities or don’t care about them—are either ignorant of how our tax systems favor the rich and disfavor the poor, or don’t care.  Those that lean toward a more activist government point to the failures of early 21st century capitalism as the reason why we need a more activist, populist, people-friendly (versus business friendly) government.

There has to be an in-between in here somewhere.  This becomes the next question to talk about and ponder.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

9 – 3/10/11 – Mardi Gras! (literally translated to “Shrove Tuesday,” the end of “Shrovetide” a traditional time of merrymaking before the Christian period of Lent)

This expedition entered Louisiana under a dark cloud, literally and metaphorically. Our last day in Texas was unpleasant (except for the great seafood lunch, consumed al fresco behind the restaurant, with the dogs – Texans get less bent out of shape about dogs in restaurant spaces).  Man met nature, industry was ubiquitous and the state route we were on took us through depressing town after depressing town, remarkable only because of the unbelievably huge industrial plants and the ever-present national chains and small box stores.  It was unpleasantly hot and humid. We were chased from the campground by mosquitoes big enough to ride and left every member of this expedition uncomfortable.  I skirted around Houston and ended up on Interstate 10 toward Beaumont and Louisiana. The traffic was thick and the drivers fast and aggressive. The Beast (bless her) can’t go much faster than 62 mph and for folks driving the limit (70-80 mph) or higher, she’s a hazard.  This makes driving, in high congestion areas, unbelievably difficult and stressful. 

After the dark day in Fresno, in which I almost had to turn back, my trip mantra is now: have a strategy (intention – traveling, the research) and plan one day at a time.  Big plans, made before one is aware of the realities of actually putting a plan in motion, sometimes need to be revised (maybe this is also a good practice for public administration? Have a strategy; plan one day at a time?).

My big plan to travel along the perimeter of the country, more or less, is not doable. If I focus on the big plan, I end up not being present to where I am in the moment because I'm thinking about where I need to get to, or be, by a certain time/date.  I’m thinking about the destination instead of the journey. Also, I simply cannot countenance extended driving in high traffic/dense situations. The Gulf Coast in Texas was enough for me – I didn’t need any more Gulf Coast experiences.  So, the plan changed.

Another reason why the plan, at least the Louisiana plan, needed to change is because this past week was Mardi Gras!  Who knew?  Well, apparently, everyone in Louisiana and the bordering states knew. And, apparently, anyone who has every lived in these areas knew.  And, apparently, everyone who has any Cajun or Creole in their family lines knew.  And, Christians fixing to celebrate Lent knew.  But, I had no idea.

A good portion of this trip, so far, has turned on chance. I didn’t plan to enter Louisiana on the Friday before Fat Tuesday (which is the unofficial beginning of Mardi Gras).  But I did.  I learned what was going on as soon as I tried to find a place to stay for a night or two.  There were no rooms (metaphorically speaking) in any RV parks/campgrounds anywhere in this part of Louisiana!  I was in Lake Charles, it was dark, I was lost, my GPS wasn’t working and the dark cloud that had been over my head that day got darker (it later literally exploded with massive thunderstorms, tornado watches, etc – this weather pattern followed us through Louisiana and is now wreaking havoc in the Midwest/East, bringing more snow your way,sorry).
By luck, we finally found a Walmart in Lake Charles, at which we could overnight. Most, not all, Walmarts allows RVers and truckers to overnight for free in their parking lots.  It’s a smart move. Walmart parking lots are usually so big, shoppers only come close to filling them on a couple days of the year.  The rest of the time, an appreciable number of folks like me overnight in the lots and, usually, spend some money in the store before we leave. This policy has me thinking differently about Walmart (well, this and seeing that it is the Dollar stores that are everywhere in small town America, not Walmart). 

We know that big box stores, malls, etc., engineer their parking lots based upon maximum load (so to speak). For most stores, the maximum load day (yes, only one day) is Black Friday.  Christmas shoppers will get close to maximum load, but never fill up the parking lot. The rest of the time, all that impervious pavement is not being utilized, creating year-long unnecessary storm water problems, etc. At least most Walmarts are putting these acres of asphalt to some use.  Catherine Horiuchi says that some commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area actually “live” in Walmart parking lots during the week.

So, Walmart parking lots became my “home” during most of my stay in Louisiana.  Thank you Walmart.

When folks get their Mardi Gras on, they get it on!

I did find a spot in a state park for one night and will write about the great folks I met there in my next blog (a shout out to my new young friend, Chase, who wants to travel for a living when he grows up – Chase, maybe you should become an anthropologist)

Big strategy, daily plan: I did not head down to New Orleans; instead I headed a bit north and then east. Part of me is very sad over this new direction – north/northeast.  No disrespect intended for the parts of the country that are in this direction nor the loved ones who live there, but I am leaving the south and it’s getting colder.

I was also sad about not heading down to the New Orleans/Gulf area because one of the things I most wanted to experience in Louisiana was a bit of Cajun culture.  Yet, I knew Mardi Gras was NOT the time to be poking along in Gulf Coast Louisiana so I headed for Highway 190. It looked like a nice route that would allow me to eventually skirt around Baton Rouge and head toward the Natchez Trace National Highway, my next destination.

Imagine my surprise when I found that Highway 190 is the Acadiana Highway and runs through the heart of Cajun country.  At the heart of the Acadiana Highway is Eunice (where the Cajun cultural center is located), the town to which someone sent me for “the best BBQ you’ll ever have.”   I had the best BBQ I’ll ever have and took the girls for a walk in the charming neighborhood around the restaurant.  I heard music a few blocks up and went to investigate.  And, what do you know?  The girls and I happened upon the start of Eunice’s Saturday (children’s) Mardi Gras parade (see the photo of the girls strutting their stuff in their Mardi Gras beads).  We stayed for the parade, had several great conversations with folks and learned about the traditional Cajun Mardi Gras practice of a “run” that takes place on Fat Tuesday (folks run from house to house, begging for something to put in the “pot” – a chicken, some okra, etc – and they a fantastic supper is prepared with whatever is given during the “run”).  The woman who told me about the run ran it last year 9 months pregnant; her daughter was born 1 week after and the baby was at the parade this year celebrating her first Mardi Gras.

We ended up spending Fat Tuesday at a RV park in Vidalia, Louisiana across the Mississippi from Natchez, Mississippi.  It was a dark and stormy day and this expedition stayed indoors (the girls are traumatized by thunderstorms). On Wednesday, we saw plenty of evidence in Natchez that a great party had taken place the day before.

Next entry: Southern Conversations and the Natchez Trace National Highway